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Emma’s Tailgater: Jaylon Johnson could be cornering future with Bears

8 months agoChris Emma

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — When cornerback Jaylon Johnson looked into a camera Sunday afternoon in the north end zone of Soldier Field and began counting his money, he was serving a reminder to his team and the rest of the NFL.  

Johnson sees himself as a top cornerback in the league, and he hopes to be paid like one.  

“I’m looking for respect and security at the end of the day,” Johnson said. 

That could come to fruition as Johnson and the Bears continue to progress in negotiations on a contract extension, sources said. The two sides are expected to meet in the coming days leading up to the NFL’s trade deadline next Tuesday at 3 p.m. CT – a point at which Johnson could be locked in for the future, dealt away to a contender or left to ponder his future with an expiring contract. For now, there is optimism that an agreement can be reached. 

Johnson is never shy about speaking his mind. He has made it clear all along that a future with the Bears is what he covets, but certainly not at a discount. Johnson wants that respect. 

During the Bears’ 30-12 win over the Raiders on Sunday, Johnson hauled in a pick-six and then later a game-sealing interception. For his part, Johnson has admitted that the lack of interceptions in his career could be detrimental at the negotiating table. After entering last Sunday with just one pick in 43 games, he came away with the football twice. 

Johnson ranks second among all NFL cornerbacks in Pro Football Focus grading, trailing only rookie standout Devon Witherspoon. He is also second at his position in lowest passer rating surrendered with a 24.7 mark. 

Bears general manager Ryan Poles, who has not addressed reporters since early September, has declined to discuss Johnson’s contract future.  

“Obviously, I’m not going to talk about money with contracts,” said head coach Matt Eberflus. “But I’ve always enjoyed seeing those guys get what they are due.” 

One year ago Thursday, the Bears dealt veteran pass rusher Robert Quinn (Eagles) in a move that left their locker room wondering for its immediate future. Days later, star linebacker Roquan Smith (Ravens) was also sent away. 

It left Poles with the challenge of replacing the talent dispatched from the roster. The Bears have not filled the voids on their pass rush without Quinn and Khalil Mack. Tremaine Edmunds has asserted himself well at linebacker, but Smith continues to prove himself as a leader and superstar in Baltimore, where he landed the $100-million deal the Bears wouldn’t offer. 

Johnson has not sought assurances from the Bears regarding a possible trade. Frankly, he admits to not trusting them anyway. The NFL is a cruel business and he’s simply looking for his own security. 

The Bears could sign Johnson to the lucrative contract that he has been seeking, trade him away prior to Tuesday afternoon’s deadline or simply hold on and tender the franchise tag next March. 

Johnson isn’t quite sure how this will play out, but he knows what he wants. 

“Security,” Johnson said. “That’s what all this is. That’s what you play the game for. Security.” 

More than a start 

Rookie quarterback Tyson Bagent has proven his abilities to process quickly, a strength to his game. But following his first NFL start last Sunday at Soldier Field, he was able to take some time and savor this accomplishment. 

The 23-year-old Bagent has ascended from Division-II standout at Shepherd University to starting quarterback in the NFL. That is no small accomplishment for anybody, but especially for an individual from a small town in West Virginia. 

What did this mean for Bagent? 

“Everything,” he said. “Everybody knows coming from where I come from, both the division I came from, kind of how I grew up with not a whole lot of football resources around me, it felt good to be able to just have hard work be rewarded.” 

Bagent finished 21-of-29 for 162 yards, 1 touchdown and no turnovers. He made his first scoring connection to running back D’Onta Foreman, who helped carry the load on offense. Bagent played within the scheme and led the way to victory. 

Justin Fields has not yet returned to practice while still recovering from a dislocated right thumb. The Bears are hopeful Fields can avoid surgery if the injury heals naturally, but it’s still uncertain when he will get back in action.  

Until that point, Bagent has the chance to prove himself as a quarterback in this league. It’s the type of opportunity that many simply never find in their careers. The Bears are certainly taking notice of how a young player who first caught their attention at the Senior Bowl in January seems to just be comfortable making this great leap. 

“Just the fact that we were able to go out there and operate clean,” said offensive coordinator Luke Getsy. “He went out and kept his poise like we expected him to do. He did a really nice job of handling — it’s not just the pass game, it’s the run game that we put a lot on our quarterbacks to do a lot. He obviously went out there and showed he was able to do that.” 

Top target DJ Moore sees Bagent as a strong leader of this scheme, a quarterback who even as a rookie inspires hope in those around him. 

“He’s just got this cool kind of swagger about him,” Moore said. “When he comes in the huddle, he’s confident. He makes everybody feel like, ‘OK, we got a chance to go execute on this play.’ He does that every time he steps in the huddle.” 

Coach Matt Eberflus made it clear following last Sunday’s game that the Bears will turn back to Fields as their starter once he’s cleared to return. Given Chicago’s investment in Fields, the No. 11 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, it’s only fair to see through this pivotal third season in his young career. 

Of course, Bagent can change the Bears’ plans if he continues to shine and lead victories as a starter. He’s comfortable and confident in this position. His team feels the same way. 

“I don’t think it was a surprise to anybody in this locker room or this building,” Foreman said. “I think the way he carries himself, the way he handles and goes about it, like I said before, is a part of who he is. I’m looking forward to another week to see if he can build on that.” 

Foreman carries on

D’Onta Foreman has been in this position before, forced out of the opportunity as a leading back and left hoping to prove himself. He could well end up back in that place with the Bears. 

For Foreman, both can be true: He is willing to play whatever role the Bears – or any team for that matter – would desire of him, but he’s also frustrated that it keeps coming to this. 

“I definitely feel that, honestly,” Foreman said. “But it’s a business. There are a lot of other great running backs, a lot of really good running backs and a lot of good competition. I take nothing away from those guys. They push me each and every day to continue to excel and get better and better. It’s part of how it goes.  

“When I get my opportunity to do so, I feel like I handle myself and carry myself in a way that I think they believe and trust in me. I just want to continue to grow and build on that.” 

The Bears are anticipating the return of rookie running back Roschon Johnson, whose concussion during the Oct. 5 game at Washington led to a void in the backfield. Johnson said Thursday that he has been cleared from the concussion protocol and is in line to play Sunday’s game. 

Foreman has excelled in the two games since, including with a 3-touchdown game during the Bears’ win over the Raiders. He has carried 36 times for 170 yards and 2 scores in parts of three games this season. He rushed for a career-best 914 yards and 5 scores last season with the Panthers. 

Khalil Herbert, who entered this season as the Bears’ top running back, could return ahead of the Thursday night game against the Panthers next month following the conclusion of his four-game absence on injured reserve. Herbert has been recovering from a high ankle sprain.  

Once Herbert and Johnson have been fully reacclimated into the Bears’ backfield, Foreman could once again fall into a reserve role. It certainly wouldn’t surprise him. 

“I just go out there and handle what I can handle,” Foreman said. “Whatever role they have me in, I’ll excel in that role. That’s kind of my focus.  

“I’m just looking forward to being able to be able to be out there playing than not playing. So, I feel like when I’m out there and I’m able to get the ball in my hands, I can be productive for sure.” 

Revisiting the Mack trade 

When the Bears reached a deal with the Chargers in March of 2022 to deal star pass rusher Khalil Mack, new general manager Ryan Poles was marking his intentions for the team he had just taken over. It was time to rebuild at Halas Hall. 

The Bears acquired a 2022 second-round pick and 2023 sixth-round selection from the Chargers in exchange for Mack, who is now a seven-time Pro Bowl player after earning that recognition in his first year with Los Angeles. 

Poles turned the second-round pick landed from the Chargers into safety Jaquan Brisker, who has emerged as a core piece in the Bears’ future and a promising player. Brisker had 104 combined tackles, 4 sacks and 1 interception as a rookie last season. He’s up to 45 tackles through 7 games this season. Chicago sent the 2023 sixth-round pick back to Los Angeles during the 2022 draft, utilizing a pair of seventh-round picks in return to draft punter Trenton Gill and safety Elijah Hicks.  

Mack had just turned 31 weeks prior to Poles’ decision for the trade, a dominant player whom the Bears believed would be nearing the end of his prime. Mack has proven that bet wrong with 15 sacks over 23 games with the Chargers, including 7 this season – and a remarkable six sacks during an Oct. 1 game against the Raiders. 

So, who won the Mack trade? That much is not quite clear thus far. The Bears used that top selection sent from the Chargers to land Brisker, a building block for their future, plus Gill and Hicks. Meanwhile, Mack still seems like a game-wrecking star as he was in Chicago. 

The Bears can only lament how they have never truly replaced Mack’s dynamic pass rushing abilities – or even come close. Chicago has just 30 sacks in 24 games since dealing Mack away.  

Last season, the Bears were led in sacks by Brisker. 

Injury report 

QB Justin Fields (right thumb) — It’s unlikely that Fields will practice this week. The focus is turning towards when he will indeed be able to return. 

S Eddie Jackson (foot) — This injury has lingered into a new season, leaving the veteran Jackson to ponder what’s next. He’s testing the injury out in practice. At some point, he could be shut down. 

RT Darnell Wright (shoulder/toe) — The rookie right tackle Wright is dealing with injuries as he’s set to face off with Mack and Bosa. This Bears may need him to tough it out if he’s able. 

LT Braxton Jones — Still a limited participant in practice after being designated to return, Jones may need another week to get back at full speed. 

S Jaquan Brisker (illness) — It’s concerning to see another illness in the secondary. 

RG Nate Davis (high ankle sprain) — Davis is likely a week or two away from being able to return. 

RB Roschon Johnson (concussion) — Barring a setback, Johnson should be able to return for Sunday night. 

DE Khalid Kareem (hip) — Kareem is trending towards making his Bears debut for Sunday night. 

OG Dan Feeney (knee) — The Bears have a banged-up offensive line, both for the starting unit and reserves. 

CB Terell Smith (mono) — Smith is back around the Bears this week, though he likely won’t return for several weeks. 

Quote to note 

“He’s been the same guy. He’s the same guy as he was last week. He’s prepared, he’s focused, he’s got that determined look in his eye.” 

–Coach Matt Eberflus, on rookie Tyson Bagent 

Emma’s Pick (4-3): Chargers 27, Bears 24 

The Chargers are a talented team, but they are beatable. Could the Bears make it two wins in a row for the first time in Eberflus’ tenure? The rookie Bagent will play well once again, but his team will come up short on Sunday night at SoFi Stadium. 

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